Following a record-setting tourism year, Alachua County voted on two grant programs that will disperse a portion of the $4.7 million held in reserves for tourism.
The Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) approved the first program on Tuesday with $1 million in funding. That program will fund capital projects run by nonprofits that promote cultural tourism.
The funds, accumulated through the Tourism Development Tax on overnight stays, must be spent to increase tourism. Last year, the tax earnings jumped $2.5 million to a record high of $7.7 million.
Commissioner Ken Cornell pulled the creation of the grant program from the consent agenda. He said he’d like to see funds support tourism in sports and outdoor trails as well.
“When you look at why we’re creating these reserves, I think it’s largely because of the sports projects,” Cornell said.
Chair Anna Prizzia agreed on trails but noted that the county has already invested heavily in sports by financing the recently opened Alachua County Sports and Event Center. The county also earmarked up to $1 million in reserves to attract the 2025 World Masters Athletics competition.
“My point isn’t that I don’t think sports are important, I do,” Prizzia said. “I just think we have continually focused on sports as a primary driver for tourism in this community—and it is—but there are a lot of other things that are drivers of tourism.”
She said that the county should invest in those other drivers, too, like ecotourism.
Commissioner Mary Alford added that the county needs to invest in cultural attractions and other tourism. The program approved Tuesday will be the first capital grant for cultural attractions that the county has run.
Instead of limiting a second program to sports or ecotourism, Cornell said the county could just run an open grant to any type of capital tourism project.
“I don’t want to say one or the other,” Cornell said. “I mean, we have the money. I want to deploy it.”
County staff recommended not including cultural projects in the second grant program, worried it would dilute the first cultural grant program and cause confusion.
The BOCC decided on another $1 million capital grant that would apply for all non-cultural tourism, including sports tourism, agricultural tourism and ecotourism.
Staff will bring the grant project back for final approval before opening up the second grant program.
After the two $1 million grant programs and a potential $1 million for the World Masters Games, the county will have $1.7 million in reserves.
Cornell said he wants to do these grant programs but added that he wouldn’t mind paying off the county’s debt from the sports and event center early. Staff said an altered tourism development budget would come forward this year, taking into account the high revenues seen through the tourism tax.